Who can understand the Middle East? So many different groups. Shias, Sunnis, Alawites, weird off-brand Christians and a strangely militaristic variety of Jew we don’t have in the US. I know this from watching the news: the place is a basket case. Do Arabs or Muslims even know what democracy means? The whole region is run by dictators of one kind or another, and history shows us that those people have no interest in governing themselves well. It’s just a mess, top to bottom. Why bother even trying to make sense of it? Thomas Friedman has been trying for 30 years, and has succeeded only in making bloviating mustachioed half-wits everywhere look bad.
Here’s a quiz. 42 years. Is it (a) how long the Assads have controlled Syria, or (b) how long the Daleys controlled Chicago. Wrong answer! It’s both!
Earlier this month, my alderman, Richard Mell, announced his retirement. He’s been alderman for 38 years, and God knows the last time someone ran against him. You could choose to believe that he was doing such a good job, and the position of alderman is so thankless, that no one bothered. Or, you could believe that since he was both the alderman and the Democratic committeeman he could use the resources of both offices to do tricks like contesting the signatures on petitions that opponents are required to file, effectively preventing their ability to get on the ballot. Of course, if you did oppose him, you either had to be sure to win or face the threat of having your trash service get cut off, your business license magically being revoked, etc. It was far easier to support him – your alley got shoveled, your trees got trimmed, and – if you were lucky – he’d give you or your cousin a job. The 33rd Ward in Chicago runs pretty much like the Ba’ath party in Iraq did for 40 years. Minus the torture and murder, of course. In Chicago, the police do the torture, and the gangs do the murder. Completely different. Also, for most of the time, there was more than one political party in Iraq.
If Mell would have retired after 20 years, he would’ve been known for trying to block the political success of Mayor Harold Washington, for the unspeakable crime of being a black person. If Mell would have retired after 30 years, he would have been remembered for engineering the rise of his son-in-law, Rod Blagojevich, to the governor’s office, from where he turned on his patron, tried to sell every privilege he could, and became a national joke. But now, at 38 years, Mell gets to be known for all of those things AND getting himself replaced by his own daughter, State Rep. Deborah Mell, whose rise he also carefully engineered. Mayor Emmanuel, our own cartoonishly ill-tempered diminutive dictator, announced her appointment yesterday. It’s not just the crazy Arabs who like hereditary oligarchy.
Among the many things that led to Mubarak’s fall in Egypt was the deep suspicion that after 30 years in power (fewer than Mell’s), he was going to engineer the rise of his son, Gamal, and deny Egyptians the right to choose their own leader. Alderman Mell just retired halfway through his term, so that Mayor Emmanuel could appoint a phony-baloney “commission” to consider a list of straw men, and then come to what everyone knew was a foregone conclusion. Are Chicagoans storming their own Tahrir? Hell no. We only go pouring out in the streets when one of our heavily taxpayer-subsidized-privately-owned sports teams wins a championship after a series of games that few taxpayers could afford to attend. Go Hawks!
Mayor Emmanuel said that Rep. Mell’s name shouldn’t disqualify her. Are you f^&king kidding me, Mr. Mayor, you f^&king ret@rd? Rep. Mell’s ONLY qualification is her name. Mayor Emmanuel will say that she is ‘qualified” to be alderman because she was a state representative. And she was a state representative because…HER NAME IS MELL. Her official Illinois General Assembly bio page only lists her NAME. The scant details on her office bio site suggest that she wandered back to Chicago one day after culinary school and suddenly – POOF! – became state representative. Magic! Like her name was a magical word that opened donor’s wallets, made her name appear on ballots, and made an office appear RIGHT NEXT TO HER FATHER’S.(maybe it’s the same magic power that Ahmadinejad claimed held the audience rapt at the UN when he spoke there in 2005).
I’ll give this to King Abdullah II and Bashar Assad: they at least served in the military. Sure, they were window-dressing posts. But even in backwards, undemocratic Arab countries, their fathers thought they should go through the motions of giving their kids legitimacy. Muammar Gaddafi even threw a bunch of money at the London School of Economics so his son, Saif al-Islam, could have a doctorate. How is it possible that a bunch of dictators care more about the credibility of their “elected” leaders than Chicagoans do?
Of course, I’m only singling out the Mells because I happen to live in their emirate. I could just as easily talk about the Daley, Stroger, Jackson, or Madigan dynasties. My recent favorite was Joseph Berrios, the current Cook County Assessor, who put fifteen (15!) members of his family on the county payroll while firing 53 poor schmucks who didn’t have the good fortune to be related to him. That kind of nepotism would make the family of Ibn Saud drool. Or it would if they hadn’t had their salivary glands removed so as to prevent fouling the tarry masses on their chins.
A report from UIC notes that the city council is even more accommodating to Mayor Emmanuel than it was for Mayor Daley. That article also cites a piece in Chicago magazine that helpfully points out that, at the end of 2012, “Emanuel had racked up 1,333 “yes” votes to 112 “nos,” and he has never lost a vote on the floor.” That’s 92% – or as they call it in Iraq, Saddam’s average margin of electoral victory, 1968 – 2002. Over 30% of the council got their seats by appointment from the mayor. This isn’t an independent legislative body. It’s a rubber stamp Majlis, signing off on the big stupid vanity projects of the Emir of Qatar. Of course, I mean no offense to His Excellency Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani. Just like a good Chicago alderman, he’s recently retired and handed power to his son. And if he lets the elections originally scheduled for 2013 happen, the Qatari Majlis will actually have a greater number of members come to their seats by election than the Chicago City Council. But will they have 30 members indicted for corruption in 30 years? Suck it, Qatar. Americans can’t even say your name right.
Let’s talk about those big stupid vanity projects. In October 1971, the Shah of Iran hosted a giant gala at Persepolis to celebrate 2500 years of the Persian Monarchy. This really angered average Iranians, and not just because His Majesty was the second member of what would turn out to be a two-person dynasty. It was a lavish and expensive boondoggle, wasting millions of dollars at a time when many Iranians were still illiterate and most of the country still had 19th century infrastructure. Richie Daley, the second member of Chicago’s two-person dynasty, capped an orgy of flashy vanity projects (Millennium Park, Navy Pier, Northerly Island) with his bid for the 2016 Olympics, an epic waste of time and money at a time when Chicago’s schools were headed for a financial abyss, streets were caving in, water mains breaking, and coyotes were returning to the desolate wastelands of the far south side.
Your Shahs of Iran, King Farouks of Egypt, and various Iraqi Monarchs were always solving the financial problems caused by their vanity projects by bargaining away their countries resources. King Farouk gave the British control of the Suez for 20 years in 1936. In 1901, the Qajar Shah in Iran signed away most of his country’s oil revenues for 60 years. Only some despotic Muslim ruler would sign away a major source of revenue for what is effectively perpetuity. Allah hu akbar, right Mayor Daley? Nice going selling our streets for 75 years. And even though Rahm rips on the deal, so far he’s only proposed changes that have made it worse. This while trying his own hand at autocratic mismanagement, by closing public schools and cutting the budgets for the remaining ones (via a wholly undemocratic school board), while also gift-wrapping $130 million for DePaul’s basketball team, millions to downtown real estate developers, and – just for kicks – giving out $5 million to make sure they still make hot dogs in Chicago. Chicagoans, don’t pretend for a moment that you can’t understand how Egyptians feel when they realized they traded Mubarak for Morsi.
There’s no Chicago Spring, and there’s not going to be. The Arab Spring took place in a hopeful moment when people believed that politics didn’t have to be winner take all. If a rival group or faction took office, maybe for the first time they wouldn’t dole out favors to their friends and screw everyone else. In Chicago, we’ve never believed that for a second. Worse, we’ve fallen into the trap that folks in the Middle East did until recently: we’ve let ourselves be placated by the baubles our autocrats bestowed on us – the parks, the bike lanes, and the shiny new train cars that distract us from the Chicago River stench of corruption and entitlement emanating from our dynastic despots. Worse, we all have a discomfiting certainty that things could always be worse. We could return to our gangland days. We could become Detroit. Or Cleveland. Like the Lebanese, we have a neighbor that looks like us, talks like us, appropriated parts of our culture, and yet is most definitely hostile to us.
They have Israel. We have Schaumburg.